The weirdo-pop artist talks quitting the industry machine and his “human and messy” career
When the music industry chewed Shamir up and spat him out, he took it as an opportunity to do whatever the hell he wanted. At 19, he was a dance-pop artist signed to XL Recordings, released one of 2015’s most acclaimed albums, Ratchet, and looked set to become a mainstream breakout star. But amidst disagreements about creative direction, he was dropped by the label soon after, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after being hospitalised during a manic episode. It was then that he independently released his second album, Hope (2017), a lo-fi home-recorded guitar-rock record that expelled his frustration with the industry – all recorded over a weekend.
At the time, he thought it’d be the last thing he’d release before quitting music. But he kept going and, at 28, has nine full-lengths to his name. His left-field DIY approach to music is far from the path he seemed set early on in his career, but it’s made him a fascinating artist who’s been tapped to open for major artists, including Courtney Barnett and Sleater-Kinney.
2022’s Heterosexuality was a magnum opus, showing Shamir’s exploration of identity and living outside of power structures. He follows up it up with his newest record, Homo Anxietatem; here, the dark electronic sounds of Heterosexuality are replaced with more light-hearted and accessible sonics, from wistful country-pop (‘Oversized Sweater’, ‘The Beginning’) to energetic dance-rock (’Wandering Through’, ‘Obsession’). For the release, he’s signed to the world-beating indie label Kill Rock Stars (Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney).
With a UK tour coming up in October, his first time on a full lap of the country since touring for Ratchet, he sat down to chat about the album and his “human and messy” approach to his career.
I feel like Homo Anxietatem feels a lot more light-hearted than, for example, ‘Heterosexuality’ did. Would you agree with that, and was that deliberate?
Sonically, yeah. Lyrically, I’d argue that some of the lyrics are even darker than Heterosexuality. I think a lot of people thought Heterosexuality was a bummer record, whereas in actuality it was actually quite a positive record. I think almost every lyric was misconstrued. And yeah, I’m kind of an asshole, so I was like, ‘Let’s do the inverse and see if anyone notices.’
What appealed to you about that?
Well, I think the reason why Heterosexuality was a lot for a lot of people was because that was the first time that sonically my lyrics matched. But I’ve always had very heavy lyrics behind very upbeat music, since my debut [album], Ratchet. It’s just a lot of people were too busy dancing to notice.
Why do you think that’s your MO?
Because it’s kind of like a Trojan horse. It’s rare that I want people to feel as sad as I maybe felt writing it, so it kinda feels like a nice neutraliser.
Throughout your discography, it seems like you’ve always been really interested in taking a left-field approach to pop. What interests you about exploring the scope of pop music?
Pop music is accessible to everyone. And being a person who’s as marginalised as I am, where the average person will never understand my point of view, I always found that pop music was the one thing that can relate with everyone. So I think that’s where my love of pop music stems from – it’s always been an agent for communication and understanding for me.
You were previously on XL Recordings, and were on a more straightforward pop path. What did it mean for you to go down a DIY route instead?
It was less of a conscious decision and more out of necessity. I mean, realistically, I never wanted to be a professional artist. I certainly have dreamed of it, especially when I was younger, but it was never something that I really, really tried for. I was watching a documentary about early Taylor Swift, and how she always was pushing, pushing, pushing; doing what she had to do to become this massive star. For me, it was quite literally overnight. I went to New York, recorded two songs over a weekend, went back to Las Vegas, and one of the songs that I recorded got Best New Track on Pitchfork, and then the next day I was talking to labels. It was literally that quick. So I think it was out of necessity after, ‘cause I was dropped. It was also me taking my own career into my own hands as well — like, I’ve been handed this, I’m going to navigate it in a way that feels honest to me, true to me, and makes me happy.
What did it take for you to find a solid footing creatively after being dropped by the label?
I think that’s the beauty of my career, is that you’re on this journey with me. Each record is me finding my footing. I think there will always be this creative incline when it comes to my career and that’s the beautiful part about it. It’s kind of boring when every release is immaculate and well thought-out and super manicured. And I think my output as an artist is very human and messy, and tracks my personal growth as well as my artistic growth with every release.
You have a UK tour coming up in October. What are you most looking forward to?
I think coming back to a lot of these places with my more guitar-rock sound. I’m really interested just to see how the energy of the audience differs for the people who like more dancey stuff, compared to the people who like more guitar-based stuff.
What can we expect from the shows?
It’s gonna be me and my band. I’m just excited to bring that vibe to the UK, because I haven’t been able to bring this band that I’ve been with since 2019 overseas, and we’ve been playing together for so long. So it feels like I’m finally bringing my family over.
Homo Anxietatem is out on 18 August.